Hinchcliffe continues to be inspired by Wickens’ recovery

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TORONTO – James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens have been friends for years, dating back to their boyhood days when they were both competed in Karting in the Greater Toronto area.

Hinchcliffe is from the Toronto suburb of Oakville and Wickens grew up down Lake Ontario in Guelph.

When they weren’t racing, one of the highlights of the summer was the Honda Indy Toronto. It’s an event Hinchcliffe attended for the first time since he was 18months old in 1988 and has been at the race every year it has been contested (there was no race at Toronto in 2008).

Wickens raced at Toronto last year as an NTT IndyCar Series rookie. He is currently recovering from a spinal injury sustained in a wicked crash at Pocono Raceway on August 19, 2018.

Wickens has made significant progress in his recovery with hopes of one day returning to racing. Meantime, he remains a key member of “Team Canada.”

Wickens will return to the streets of Toronto this weekend as he drives a specially modified Acura NSX passenger car by Arrow so that the man who remains without full use of his legs can drive the car. Wickens will drive the car during the parade lap of the Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto.

Watch the Honda Indy Toronto on NBCSN Sunday, July 14 at 3 p.m. Eastern Time.

By watching Wickens make tremendous improvement in his recovery, Hinchcliffe admits it helps him keep his life in perspective.

Hinchcliffe, himself, has gone through some serious times of adversity, including a near-fatal crash at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during practice for the Indianapolis 500 on May 18, 2015.

“It’s funny, people used to say that about me, I say that about him, and he says that about people he sees at rehab,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s all relative. For me, Robby’s attitude towards this whole thing has been such a huge part of his rehabilitation, but also the people close to him coping with it.

“I don’t see it any more.

“There was a picture of him from the Indy 500 Banquet, Him and Karli standing on the Red Carpet. It took me a second to see him as standing. I don’t see him as sitting or standing, I see him as Robby. I’m happy we are at that point and I think he is comfortable at that point.

“He is going to keep pushing. He is going to walk one day and I’m almost not going to be that surprised. I’ll be happy; but that not surprised.”

Wickens has attended several NTT IndyCar Series races this season, including the season-opener at St. Petersburg, Florida and the entire “Month of May” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Wickens will be at Toronto to help support the efforts of “Team Canada” in this big event for Canada’s largest city.

“Team Canada” is the nickname for Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports because Hinchcliffe and Wickens are from the Toronto area and team co-owner Ric Peterson is from Calgary, Alberta.

“On track, if not off track, Robby is still a huge part of this team,” Hinchcliffe explained. “To have two Canadian drivers and a Canadian team owner, it’s pretty special. It’s a one in a million odds thing that we would both end up in the same organization. For us, there is an added passion to racing there, in our backyard, for Robby and myself and being in Canada for Ric Peterson.

“It’s important for all of us as the unofficial Team Canada to give the Canadians a good result to cheer for.”

Peterson and team co-owner Sam Schmidt have been extremely supportive of Wickens during his time of recovering.

“We can’t say enough about how important Robert Wickens is to our team, even though he is not driving this season,” Peterson said. “I don’t think people know how much we really do miss Robert. He was very, very important to this team and he still is when he comes back. It’s very important because Robert is an inspiration to the whole team, but also a big help to Marcus and his first year in IndyCar. Robert has been a big help to him. We really like having him around.”

New to the team is former Formula One driver Marcus Ericsson of Sweden. He made 97 F1 starts before joining Arrow Schmidt Peterson for the 2019 season. A quick learner, Ericsson finished second to race winner Scott Dixon in the second race of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on June 2.

The 28-year-old Ericsson has earned “honorary status” as a member of “Team Canada” by the leader of the team, Hinchcliffe.

“Sweden is like the Canada of Europe – super nice people, they are OK with Winter, they like hockey, they use Snowshoes and they are good at recycling,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s been great to have him on the team.”

Ericsson has fit in perfectly with the team. He is a former F1 driver who is willing to learn the much different form of racing in IndyCar. And, he is also learning the unique culture of Canada.

“We both love hockey, both countries do,” Ericsson said. “Fortunately for me we usually beat the Canadians.”

Hinchcliffe jumped in and said, “Blatantly not true. Anybody with a Google can tell you that’s a complete lie.

“He’s an honorary Canadian now, except when it comes to hockey,” Hinchcliffe said. “He’s not good enough for that.”

Ryan: Stressful second title is a soup good for Josef Newgarden’s soul

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MONTEREY, Calif. – At her family’s home in Nashville, Tennessee, Tina Newgarden always keeps an extra stash of corn chowder in the freezer.

She never knows when her son, Josef, unexpectedly might drop by in desperate need of his go-to comfort food.

“It’s just in case I’m not at home, and he just goes in and grabs it himself if he’s coming home from out of town,” Tina said with a knowing smile. “And then you’ll catch him down there eating his favorite soup and watching a movie.”

When he gets done this week with the whirlwind of media obligations required after becoming an NTT IndyCar Series champion for the second time, you probably will find Newgarden curled up on the couch with a warm bowl of old-fashioned goodness in his lap and an inspirational flick on the TV (perhaps a screening of “Return of the Jedi” for a Star Wars fan).

He was crowned Sunday as the best driver on a highly competitive circuit after a season of excellence (average start of 5.5, average finish of 5.6), but Josef Newgarden really has had a tough couple of months.

That was evident in the tears that flowed immediately after he exited his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet and seemed ready to collapse in a pool of relief from the mental exhaustion and high anxiety that had followed his quest to become a two-time champion.

“I don’t ever cry,” Newgarden, 28, said Sunday after gritting out an eighth-place finish that clinched the championship in the season finale at Laguna Seca Raceway. “Actually, it infuriates my fiancée because I don’t think I’ve ever cried in front of her. It disturbed her in some ways. She’s like, ‘You never cry! I don’t know why you don’t do that. You should cry at some point.”

If there’s anyone who knew how the 2019 points battle weighed on him, it was Ashley Welch and the rest of Newgarden’s family – the outlet that was emotionally invested and supportive of his career but also provides a release from the tension.

Josef Newgarden celebrates with his father, Joey (left), his grandmother Karen Rasmussen (front), his fiancee, Ashley (second from right), and mother Tina (right) after his second championship (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

They were all on hand Sunday (including his father, Joey, and his “Mormor” Karen Rasmussen, the 80-year-old maternal grandmother who came from Denmark to attend her second IndyCar race) and shared in the culmination of what’s been a very emotional and eventful year (which still has wedding bells ahead).

Josef Newgarden with his grandmother (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

Was it stressful?

“To say the least,” a beaming Welch said as she watched her fiancé hoist the Astor Cup on the championship stage. “The level of competitiveness in this sport is unreal. Any different guy can come in and win any different race.

“For him to be leading all of those different guys who had just as much potential, if not more sometimes. It means so much. We had a friend tell him after the first one, anyone can win one championship, but they remember you if you win two. So I think he feels like ‘Oh, it’s not just luck. I’m meant to be here.’ And that is …”

Welch paused and her voice briefly quavered as she watched Newgarden, whom she has been together with for seven years (they were engaged last October), hoist the Astor Cup above his head.

“Beautiful,” she smiled. “So I think you see all his emotion coming from it. I know him, and he’s thinking about how many people put their neck on the line to get him to where he is today. He talks about when he was little and starting to watch IndyCar racing, Penske was his pinnacle. Getting to drive for them but being able to perform and make an impact on their history, he feels it so much.

“You saw all the outpouring of “My dreams have come true! I’ve worked so hard, and they’re here!”

It certainly was a different feeling than two years ago when Newgarden won the pole position at Sonoma, led 41 laps and won punctuated his inaugural championship with a runner-up finish in the season finale.

Sunday’s drive was indicative of the weight – and wait — that Newgarden had endured while leading the championship standings for virtually six consecutive months since winning the season opener at St. Petersburg (he was out of the points only once – after a fourth in the Indianapolis 500 that now is the only void in his career).

“The first (championship), it was shocking and overwhelming,” Tina Newgarden said. “The second time it’s almost like he had this mark on his back because he’s been leading the points the whole season. So it would be really sad, devastating if he didn’t get it at the end of the season. But I’m so proud of him. He’s very disciplined. He just loves it so much.”

“If he’s down and has a bad day, then we’re down having a bad day as well. It’s terrible, but that’s just how it is. This is a good year, so now we can all breathe. The last two months has really been a little stressful. So yeah. We’ve been trying to keep the mood up, but God, I’m so happy!”

Newgarden, who qualified fourth and never had winning pace all weekend, said he felt “more nervous because I felt like this one was more ours to lose, and I thought we deserved (the championship). I didn’t want to make a mistake. I got a bit nervous in the middle of the race because I thought we were going down a rabbit hole we didn’t want to be down.”

But the very un-Newgarden-esque eighth – only the fourth time in 17 races he finished outside the top 10 this season – was the outcome of a sound pit strategy that delivered the title by 25 points over Simon Pagenaud, who proclaimed his Penske teammate “the most deserving guy” to win the title.

“It didn’t really start weighing on me until we got (to Laguna Seca),” Newgarden said. “I knew it would hit me here because it was double points. You know it’s going to be a very difficult situation. It’s just that intensity and that unknown, where if you make a small mistake, it can turn into a very big mistake. At another event, it wouldn’t be that way.”

Team owner Roger Penske noticed Newgarden had butterflies on the race morning before he would join Sam Hornish Jr. as the only American to win multiple IndyCar championships in the past two decades. “I think there’s so much emotion inside for someone like that because you’ve got to be perfect,” Penske said. “And I think the fact that he was able to execute the way he did, it was just a time to let it all out.”

Newgarden now is among lofty company on a list of multi-time champions at Team Penske that includes Rick Mears, Tom Sneva, Al Unser and Gil de Ferran. And his four-win season helped him take a critical step toward putting his name with true IndyCar legends such as A.J. Foyt (seven championships), Scott Dixon (five) and Mario Andretti (four).

“I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s harder to win a second championship than a first,” he said. “And I think in a lot of ways, that’s true. It’s very difficult to win a championship. But then to follow it up and make it happen again, it seems like a bigger mountain almost.

“I don’t know what causes that. But I just had it in my mind that if we could get this done, it’d be the achievement of the year.”

It’s especially impressive considering everything Newgarden is trying to accomplish in 2019. Besides winning a championship, he also:

–Will be getting married Oct. 26 to Welch in Nashville;

Moved from Davidson, North Carolina, (near Team Penske headquarters) to his hometown;

–Began building a house with Welch, who also brought home a rescue pup named Zoomer (or affectionately known as “Zoom” around home). “They say a year, but it’s going to be a year and a half” to finish, Welch said with a laugh. “We were in a one-bedroom apartment. I told him I don’t want to have kids in a one-bedroom apartment.”

–Underwent several oral surgeries to correct some improper dental work from childhood.

“We could have taken a couple things off the plate,” Newgarden said. “But you know what? Everything needed to be done. We wanted everything to get done, and we’re doing it all. I don’t know how the year worked out, because (racing) is the priority. You do all those things and decide, ‘Yeah, we’re going to make the plate this full.’ But something still has to take the cake at the end of the day, and the racing is what does that. And everyone knows that’s the program, and this is the most important part of the year, because you don’t get that back.

“If you have an opportunity to race and compete for a championship, when it’s there, you’ve got to take it. So I tried to keep that at the forefront of my mind all year, and I made it the priority, but it was just a little more difficult with all the other things going on.”

Josef Newgarden kisses his fiancee, Ashley Welch, after winning the NTT IndyCar Series championship (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

Welch, who knew nothing about racing while working as a princess cast member at Disney World when Newgarden “swept me off my feet,” provides a release valve. Though she is comfortable with being a knowledgeable member of the paddock (“I know what push to pass means. That was a big thing for me”), Welch also can help distract him from the pressure of IndyCar.

“I think it’s better to know less, because then he is able to escape at home and make home be home, and then work be work,” she said. “Because when you’re in a professional sport, you can’t really escape the work. It comes home with you whether in interviews or social media, or just obligations in general, or practice, or research. You’re always living in it, so I think it’s really smart to just have your home be home.”

In that sense, staying busy in his personal life has been good for the extremely affable Newgarden, a self-described introvert who gradually has withdrawn from social media in his late 20s.

Though he is as articulate and eloquent as any driver in auto racing, he also is happy to defer to his teammates on promotional opportunities because “I go home and am happy to be away from all of it. … I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just my introverted-ness that’s getting worse. I really try to do the best I can for the series and team and partners. It is so important to represent in the right way, but at the same time, it’s gotten harder” to be on social media in a professional setting.

“It’s all the racing,” Tina Newgarden said when asked about the source of her son’s stress. “Him building a house and all that, that’s nothing. That’s easy. (Winning a championship) is not easy. Anything else is easy.

“He got it, so I’m so proud of him. He’s one of the very lucky ones that made it here, because for every one, I’m sure there are 500 (drivers) looking in, wanting to have that. But he worked hard, and I just told him one time, ‘Don’t be so moody about it when it doesn’t go well.’ He’s still moody about it if it doesn’t go well! He’s still the same.”

That’s why the bowl of corn chowder still is waiting in her freezer.

A hearty meal for two-time champion who finally can relax.